The Jewish name is not merely a means of identifying an individual, but a matter of significance, a concept with spiritual content. Logically, there is a close association between the name and the person bearing it. This is emphasized frequently in the Torah, Prophets, and Holy Scriptures. We see this in Bereishis 32:27-28, “He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said, ‘Yaakov.’ Then he said, ‘No longer shall your name be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have contested with angels and with men, and have prevailed.’” The same concept is stressed several times in the Talmud.

For the above reason, the naming of a Jewish newborn is a sacred undertaking, part of the Jewish religious life cycle. A Jewish boy is named during the bris ceremony, as he enters the covenant of Avraham Avinu; a girl is named when her father is called up to the Torah.

While it is true that a Jewish boy or girl is named according to the unconstrained joint decision of the parents, this name nonetheless receives its endorsement from Heaven. The name is registered as belonging to this child forever. It is by this name that the boy will be called up to the Torah upon reaching his bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen; upon reaching adulthood and marriage, this name will appear in the kesubah; this name is mentioned in the E-l malei rachamim prayer offered for the benefit of the soul after 120 years. Thus, the Jewish name escorts the Jew throughout life, at all occasions, be they joyful or (G‑d forbid) the opposite.

When praying for the speedy recovery of a sick one, and when offering the mi shebeirach prayer, the Jewish name is again mentioned, together with the mother’s name. When the illness is grave, however, and the patient’s life is threatened, the name is often changed, by adding another name to the original one.

This adding of a name is also done within the sphere of the mi shebeirach prayer. It is done in shul, mentioning the patient’s full name, the new and the original together, and beseeching a full recovery in his behalf. This change of name constitutes a sort of change in the patient’s identity; this gives rise to the hope that it will likewise alter his fate; meshaneh shem, meshaneh mazal - “a change of name brings about a change of fate.”

When choosing a name for their newborn child, parents review the names of their dear ones. This is based on the precept of the Torah that the name of the departed shall not be erased from Israel. Occasionally, the child is named after some giant of Torah learning, or the greatest tzaddik of the generation, whose life was consecrated to the Torah; or a girl is named after great tzidkonis whose life served as an example to the public.

When the child is named after a departed relative - according to Ashkenazic custom - it also fulfills the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother. This mitzvah is obligatory not only during their lifetime, but also after their death. It is a great satisfaction to the soul, and affords pleasure to the souls of departed parents, when their descendants bear their names. Especially when the children are fitting members of our people, following the traditions of our forefathers.

Unfortunately, there are many Jewish children who either do not know their Jewish name, or else they are ashamed of it, hiding it behind a non-Jewish name. This is chiefly the fault of the parents, who educate their children in this manner. The Sages have said (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:22) that one of the reasons our forefathers merited to be redeemed from Egypt was that they did not change their names - they continued calling themselves Reuven, Shimon, Levi, etc.

Regarding the different categories of Jewish names, they can be classified in general as follows:

i. Biblical names - i.e., names mentioned in the five books of the Torah, in the Prophets, or in the Holy Scriptures;

ii.Talmudic names - i.e., names originally found in the Talmud and Midrashim;

iii.Names found in Nature - in the animal world, some of which also appear in Scripture, such as Chava, Rachel, Devorah, Tziporah, Yonah, etc. There are also names from the animal kingdom not mentioned in Scripture as names of people, such as Aryeh, Zev, Tzvi; such names originated with the blessings of Yaakov and Moshe, who applied the names of various living things to the Tribes of Israel;

iv. Names found in Nature - in the plant world, some of which also appear in Scripture, such as Tamar, etc. Other such names are Shoshana, Alon, Oren, Oranah, Aviva, etc.

v. Names that include the Name of G‑d within them, and names that express thanks to G‑d;

vi. Names of Angels, that have been adopted as human names;

vii. Secondary names, that occur jointly with the primary name, though occasionally they occur alone.

In this book, we will attempt to collect and elucidate all the laws and customs connected with names of people.

One’s Name Is His Vital Force

It is stated in the holy seforim that the name by which a person is called constitutes his soul and his vital force. This means that when the soul inhabits the body, it draws life into it by means of the name, i.e., through a correct joining of the letters of the name. It is explained in Tanya, ch. 1 of Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, that for all created things in the universe, the Hebrew name by which they are called constitutes - after progressive stages of evolutionary descent - the literal speech of the Ten Sayings by which the world was created. This descent occurs through successive exchanges and joinings of the letters in the 231 permutations, until eventually they are embodied within the person to give him life.

The name by which he is called is the vessel that contains the condensed vital force inherent in the letters of the name. As the Holy One said to the Angels, “Adam’s wisdom is greater than yours”; for he understood the ultimate source of each created being, and accordingly he called them by their names. Therefore, we find that when we wish to revive someone who has fainted, we call him by his name. By calling his name, we arouse his vital force at its source, and draw vitality down into the body. Similarly, if one is asleep, we call him by his name.

A name has two opposing characteristics. On one hand, the name is associated with the soul. Thus, when we call someone by his name, we arouse his vital force. This applies not only to one’s proper name, but also to a descriptive name - when we call someone “wise,” we arouse his intellectual faculties; when we call him “merciful,” we arouse his pity. Therefore, the disciples of R. Shimon bar Yochai uttered his praises, so that this would arouse their master’s great powers, which he would impart to them. All this applies much more so to the proper name, for it arouses not only individual powers, but the entire soul.

On the other hand, it is known that the whole purpose of a name is for the use of others; i.e., so that one’s fellow person may call him by it, and he will know that it is him whom he has called. But for himself, a person needs no name; of what use is a name to a person who lives alone? Thus, it appears that the name is not connected with one’s essence or vital-force, but is merely established by convention.

The resolution of this paradox is that one’s name is like the sefirah of Malchus; it is but a ray (זיו - ziv) that by itself possesses nothing of its own, but is rooted in its original source. For this reason, it has these opposing characteristics.

That one’s name represents his vital-force is hinted at by the word neshamah (“soul”), whose middle two letters form the word shem (“name”). The letters of a person’s name are the pipeline through which life is drawn into the body. Therefore, the word (shem) has the same numeric value as (tzinor), “pipe”.

The Name is the Cause

The Talmud says (Berachos 7b), “How do we know that one’s name can cause [events in his life]? Scripture says, ‘Go and see the works of the L-rd, Who has put destruction (shamos) upon the earth.’ Do not read shamos [‘destruction’], but shemos [‘names’].” Maharsha explains: we cannot ascribe to the Holy One evil deeds such as destruction, therefore, the Sages interpreted the word shamos as shemos, meaning that G‑d’s works are drawn down through a person’s name, and thus, the name is the cause.

Again, in the Talmud, we find that R. Meir would make deductions [about a person] from the name, but R. Yehudah and R. Yosse would not deduce anything. Elsewhere, R. Yitzchak declares, “The spies [sent by Moshe to the Land of Israel] had names that reflected their deeds.”

The notion that a person’s name informs us about his deeds and character, applies not only to individual people, but to the generation as a whole. Thus, the prophet Yermiyahu’s name indicates that in his days the Beis HaMikdash became arimon [vacant], or that in his days severe judgment was nisromema [raised up; both of these words share common letters with his name]. This is confirmed in Zohar, where Yermiyahu’s name (who foretold punishment) is contrasted with that of Yeshayahu, whose name (meaning “G‑d’s rescue”) caused our redemption, and the restoration of the Divine Light to its rightful place.

Sefer Chassidim and Sefer HaBahir also caution us about names. Midrash Tanchuma comments on the verse, “Remember the days of the world, understand the years of every generation” - one should always examine historical names, and choose for his child a name that will result in his becoming a tzaddik.

Thus, we see that a person’s name indicates what traits he is likely to possess. From his name, we may guess what sort of person he is, and what his deeds are. R. Yosef Karo writes in Maggid Meisharim that a person named Avraham tends to do acts of kindness, a person named Yosef is strong in resisting illicit sexual urges, or else he feeds and sustains others, as did Yosef, who fed and sustained his father and brethren. Scripture says, “Naval is his name, and abomination (nevala) goes with him.” This is also what Eisav meant when he said, “Is it for nought that his name is called Yaakov? indeed, he has withheld (vayaakeveini) from me twice. Midrash Tanchuma states that had our generations merited it, the Holy One Himself would have given each individual person his name, and from his name we would thus know his character and deeds.

Zushe Wilhelm

Erev Chai Elul, 5758

The 300th year since the birth of the Baal Shem Tov